Folk theology describes beliefs, generally shared by a large group of people, which said adherents have rarely thought through in a critical way. These beliefs are normally inherited (passed on through rote teaching and tradition).
I present to you my list of the top 20 examples of folk theology. There are many more, but I narrowed the list, believing these present a good sample with which to begin. Some examples have very serious consequences; others are somewhat benign. I started with the least consequential, then progressed to the ones which carry the weightiest theological consequences. As you read through the list, be careful not to become too discouraged. Folk theology is a phenomenon affecting many, if not most of us, and leads us to myriad misunderstandings.
Let the countdown begin:
20. People become angels
This is a common misconception in popular culture, though it appears less frequently among Evangelical Christians. However, this niche of folk theology influences many through its presentation in popular songs and movies. Many older cartoons’ narratives are liberally sprinkled with this folk theology (Think of what would happen to Tom every time he died in Tom and Jerry!).
19. Satan is red with horns and a tail
In a similar vein, this idea is not so much found among Bible-believing Christians as it is in pop culture. However, like other examples of folk theology, it frequently finds an extended audience in the secular populace. While Christians may not believe Satan actually looks this way, many subscribe to the point of view that his very appearance reflects his evil nature. In other words, most people believe Satan and demons to be hideous and foul looking creatures. However, this belief is not supported in Scripture. Rather, Satan and his demons are depicted as appearing as stunningly beautiful creations of God, deceiving and distracting mankind from realizing their nature as agents of evil intent by using the guise of physical attractiveness. (2 Cor. 11:14).
18. Angels have wings
While it is true that Isaiah 6:6, Ezekiel 1:11, and Revelation 4:8 describe creatures worshiping God and having wings, this does not mean that every type of angel has wings. In no case do we find that their physical appearance resembles the depictions (looking like a man or woman with wings coming out of their backs) so commonly portrayed in our modern culture.
17. Hell is Satan’s domain
There are many synonyms for Hell used in the Bible. Some of these are more descriptive and intentional than others. However, when we think of Hell, we normally are speaking of the place of eternal punishment mentioned in the New Testament, described as the “lake of fire” in Revelation 20:15 (cf Rev. 19:20; 20:10, 14). In reality, not only is Hell not Satan’s domain, residence, or home, he has yet to even be there! In this sense, Hell is not presently “open for business,” since it is a place which exists explicitly for the execution of divine judgement – and this greatest of all judgements has not yet taken place. So, all of those images of Satan being the king of Hell . . . forget them. Once he gets there, he will have no more authority than any other human or demon who calls the place home.
16. Satan’s name is Lucifer
Many people believe that “Lucifer” is Satan’s actual name. This is wrong for many reasons. First, the word from which we get “Lucifer” is the Hebrew helel. It occurs only once in Isaiah 14:12 and is not speaking of Satan, but of the king of Babylon. Later tradition saw a double reference here and believed that Satan was also in view. The Latin Vulgate translated “morning star” as “Lucifer.” The King James Version used this word in its translation. Hence, without justification, this name found its way into our tradition as the formal name of Satan.
15. Our resurrection bodies will be able to go through walls
People often think this because they believe Christ’s body went through walls (John 20:19). However, the passage does not speak to the nature of his resurrected body, but rather to his power. There is no reason to believe the physiology of our resurrected bodies will be any different than what it currently is. Remember, God is redeeming Plan A, not falling back to Plan B. Generally speaking, whatever Adam and Eve’s physiology was like before the fall will be what ours will be like after the resurrection. We will not be able to walk through walls, fly, or run as fast as Flash. And you know what? This is very good.
14. Revelation 22:19 teaches that the canon closed after the completion of Revelation
Many believe that Rev. 22:19 closes the canon of Scripture. But this is simply speaking about the book of Revelation and repeating a common biblical command protecting the sacredness of God’s word (see Deut. 4:2 and 12:32, or Prov. 30:6 – obviously the canon did not close after these books). I believe the canon of Scripture is complete, but not because of these verses.
(See here for more about this.)
13. Ninety-nine percent right theology and one percent wrong theology equals one hundred percent wrong
I was taught this when I was very young and believed it for quite some time. But if this is true, we are all in trouble. First, any glance through church history reveals that no two Christians ever fully agreed about everything. Someone was right and someone was wrong. However, this folk theology would lead to the rather odd situation where there was only one person in all of history that was saved, since everyone else was one hundred percent wrong.
Moreover, this would mean that you and I are one hundred percent wrong, since we all have many issues with our theology. This is evidenced by periodic changes in perceptions and learning that lead believers to relinquish one viewpoint in favor of another. Certainly, God could make us all united and right about everything. However, apparently, this does not serve his purpose.
(See here for my theories why.)
12. God cannot exist in the presence of sin
This is not true. Yes, the Bible says that God’s holiness will not allow Him to approve of evil (Hab. 1:13). However, God can most certainly exist in the presence of sin. After all, the Holy Spirit dwells in us, doesn’t he? Satan presented himself to God, didn’t he (Job 1:6)? Furthermore, and most importantly, the Second member of the Trinity lived among us, didn’t he (John 1:14)?
11. “Abraham’s Bosom” was a place between heaven and hell that Old Testament saints went to until Christ paid for their sins
This one is often related to the previous folk theology example. The idea is that since God cannot be in the presence of sin, he had to wait until after the cross to bring anyone to heaven. This is often thought to be evidenced in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. However, the reason why Christ speaks of Lazarus going to “Abraham’s Bosom” is not to teach us of some Old Testament “pit stop” between earth and heaven, but for rhetorical purposes. The Pharisees and religious leaders were convinced that there was no greater child of Abraham than a rich person, while poor people were the furthest away from him. Conversely, the poor man, in an ironic twist, was the one who was in deepest fellowship with Abraham, being at his bosom.
See here as I argue against the myth of Abraham’s Bosom
10. Heaven will be timeless
Many people believe that once we get to heaven, time will cease to exist. But there is no justification for such a belief, as it is theologically unnecessary and philosophically impossible. God’s creation will always experience a past, presence, and future. There will always be a succession of events and, therefore, a passing of time. Only God, in his essence, is timeless.
For more on this, see here.
9. Jesus suffered more than the cumulative sufferings of all of mankind
I am not certain as to the source of this position. That said, I know I have heard this viewpoint in a lot of Christian theology. However, there is no reason to believe that Christ’s physical sufferings were worse than those which anyone has ever experienced, either in intensity or duration. While Christ’s physical suffering was beyond imagination, the Atonement did not require it to be worse than the cumulative sufferings of all mankind.
8. One sin will send you to hell for all eternity
This comes as an answer to the question, “Why is hell eternal?” The answer people frequently give is that even the smallest of sins deserves eternal punishment. This is why everyone who goes to hell is there for all eternity. But there is no evidence for this in the Bible. Hell does seem to be eternal for everyone who goes there. However, its duration is not due to the commission of one sin. It is due to the eternal rebellion in which people participate, even while in hell. As C.S. Lewis once said, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.” People are in hell forever because they eternally hate God.
For more on this, see here.
7. All we will do in heaven is bow down to God 24/7
This little gem of folk theology used to scare me to death. Though I gave it lip service by acting excited, I really did not want to go to a heaven where all I would do is sing and bow down. Later, I came to discover that this view (called Gnosticism) presented a distorted view of evil, its relation to the present world, and what it really means to worship God. Everything in Scripture says that we are going to be busy with many activities on the New Earth, just as it was intended from the beginning.
I cover this fairly extensively here.
6. Jesus turned water into grape juice
Many people have grown up in a culture so fearful of alcohol that they have changed the meaning of Scripture to facilitate a legalistic structure that justifies their teachings of total abstinence from alcohol. As well-meaning as this may be, it is not true. Jesus not only turned the water into alcoholic wine in Cana, but “the best” alcoholic wine (John 2:10). How do we know it was alcoholic? Because in praising Jesus, the waiter explicitly described the usual custom of serving the good wine first, thus reserving the bad wine for later in the evening, when everyone was drunk. Instead, Jesus performed the miracle at a time during the ceremony which allowed the wedding guests to be served the good wine last.
Here are some extensive arguments that I make concerning this.
5. Money is the root of all evil
This is a fairly significant error. Most people quote 1 Timothy 6:10 just like this: “Money is the root of all evil.” But this is not what the verse says. It says, “For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil.” That changes the meaning quite a bit.
4. Asking Jesus into your heart
Many people use this phrase to talk about how they were saved. Asking Jesus into one’s heart is the primary means by which people are told to convert to Christianity. However, this presents a few significant problems. First, nowhere in Scripture are we told to ask Jesus into our hearts. Second, this implies that salvation can be said and done with no further implications concerning trust and devotion. The Bible tells us we are to trust in Christ. This has implications of repentance and belief that the simple request for Jesus to live in our hearts does not carry.
3. The most significant way to break the third commandment (“Do not take the Lord’s name in vain”) is by saying G*d D%*n
I am convinced that many people think they are going to heaven because they have never said G*d D%*n. For some, saying these words is the greatest sin one could ever commit. But, in reality, the third commandment has nothing to do with cursing, much less saying G*d D%*n. It is about protecting God’s reputation (i.e., name). It is about not trying to take away his reputation by smearing it with lies and self-gain. The most explicit way that I might be able to take his name in vain would be to say that God told me to tell you something when he really had not done so.
Find out more here.
2. Where two or three are gathered in prayer, Christ is in their presence
In my view, this folk theology causes serious misunderstanding among professing Christians. Many people believe that the presence of two or three other believers in a prayer meeting invokes Christ’s real presence, in a way that praying alone does not. This passage is taken from Matthew 18:20. But the passage does not speak of some special physical or spiritual presence of Christ that only comes during group prayer; rather, it speaks of Christ’s presence in judgement or approval of judgement. You see, the full context of the verse is Matthew 18:15-20. The subject is church discipline. When someone has sinned against you, you are to take “two or three” people with you to confront that person. If the process proceeds without the person’s repentance, judgment is to be decreed. So long as these instructions are followed, Christ is “with you” in judgment.
Think of what it would mean otherwise. If the presence of Christ is only there when we have many people praying, what does this mean when you pray alone? He is not there. Be careful with this one. It could easily send the wrong message.
I write about this more here.
1. All sins are equal in the sight of God
I believe this is the most incorrect and destructive folk theology we have in evangelical circles. I hear it all the time. However, it does not take long to deconstruct this view. All sins are not equal in the sight of God. All people are equally depraved, but not all sins are equal. After all, some things in the Bible are said to be an abomination to God. If all sins are equal, such a designation is meaningless. Christ tells the Pharisees that they strain out gnats and swallow camels (Matt. 23:24). If all sins are equal, they are either all gnats or all camels. And we could not get any more explicit than Christ’s words to Pilate, “He who handed me over to you is guilty of the greater sin.” (John 19:11)
The implications are severe. If all sins are equal to God, then you are asserting that God becomes just as angry with you for breaking the speed limit as he would with someone who rapes a six-year-old girl. If this is true, fine. We don’t make the rules. However, if one is going to teach this as fact, he better be very sure. That said, in my estimation, this is the worst example of folk theology I have presented thus far.
I have written on this here.
There will not be sex in heaven (we can all dream!)
I hope you have benefited from this discussion. Realizing that there are many other extant folk theologies, please, give me your feedback as to examples of folk theology which should have received attention here.
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